Over dinner recently with Heronswood’s brilliant new plant collector, Simon Crawford, I learned that what we regard as soil resulted from plant life, not the other way around.
While not quite as simple as that, it’s true that plants created land, as in “land, ho!” or “this is good earth—our crops will grow here”, etc. The brown and black stuff plants grow in?
In fact, most of the land that isn’t rock was formed by millions of years of plant life—especially their evolving root systems.
Over millennia, plants actually gathered soil beneath them—they created it. Grew it. Soil doesn’t grow plants; plants grow soil. I mean, duh.
It was a bit weird to hear this over cocktails. A spectacular, biblical type of insight—through the alcohol haze I discern . . . a green rock.
Grace Romero and Bill Rein, our “crackerjack” research team, in the immortal words of The New York Times’ Anne Raver, added more insights the following day. Bill said that water used to flood characteristically across the land and only “braid” through early plants. Then, some 400 million years ago, forests emerged—plants bound together in a common yet competitive struggle toward sunlight—and caused water to “meander” and thus become rivers. Roots wove together as well as to substrate so firmly that they “dominated” the earth and, in effect, created soil to serve their existence.
The great mega tree of this period, a precursor to today’s giant flowering forest trees, is called “Archeopteris”. It was non-flowering—a sort of giant proto pine with fern-like leaves and mega-spores. It covered most of the planet’s land mass and provided it with its first large and effective shaded environment—a huge step in botanical history.
I was aware of the formation of oxygen—and our atmosphere—by plant life but, brother, I felt stupid when I learned this other, simple “rock to earth” sequence. More correctly, the rock was covered by plants, and then by earth.
More or less.